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Last monthâ€™s column was the first in a three-part series that emphasizes key safety issues during thermal imager (TI) use. The ease with which most TIs can be operated today breeds an overconfidence and over-reliance on the tool; both of these can have dangerous consequences if firefighters do not train themselves to resist temptation.
Five Deadly Sins
The first part of this series identified the â€œFive Deadly Sinsâ€ of thermal imaging, which are:
1. Standing and Walking in Unsafe Environments
2. Abandoning Traditional Safe-Search Techniques
3. Advancing at an Inappropriate Speed
4. Misinterpreting Images
5. Misapplying Technology
These â€œDeadly Sinsâ€ apply to a wide variety of situational quirks, activities and misjudgments that can place firefighters in unsafe positions. As with most potential problems, awareness is critical to avoiding the pitfall. Then, practice in safe techniques reinforces proper behavior. This installment focuses on the â€œSecond Deadly Sin:â€ Abandoning Traditional Safe-Search Techniques.
Abandoning Traditional Safe-Search Techniques
The restricted visibility that firefighters typically experience in structure fires helps deter them from overextending themselves; however, a firefighter with a TI does not have restricted visibility. The ability to â€œseeâ€ can raise his confidence level, often tempting him to engage in higher-risk operations or to ignore danger signs.
Take, for example, a recent training exercise in Illinois. Firefighters practicing with thermal imagers, even after specific instruction on how to proceed through a smoke-filled structure, engaged in unsafe operations. One acting officer walked next to the crawling hose team until they entered the fire room. Another firefighter split off from his company to do a right-hand search while his two partners went left. Yet another followed his company on a left-hand search, then when ordered to search a specific area, he continued by himself on a right-hand search. The ability to â€œseeâ€ brought overconfidence to the teams, and they began ignoring basic safety practices.
Firefighters cannot confuse â€œvisibilityâ€ with â€œsafety.â€ Operations that are conducted with a hoseline or ropeline without a TI must be conducted with a hoseline or ropeline with a TI. Search patterns must still be coordinated and easily reversible. At any point, a TI-equipped team could lose its thermal imager or have the battery fail. The firefighters would then have to continue their operation without the benefit of the TI and, more importantly, navigate their way out of the building without the TI. Firefighters still must keep a mental map of the structure, ensuring that they are aware of their approximate location inside the structure as well as their primary and secondary egress points.
Training for Safety
To address safety considerations in hostile environments, supervisors must ensure that their firefighters properly perform searches with and without a thermal imager. A successful training program will have three primary components. First, training must require firefighters to use a thermal imager while performing normal fireground operations, including advancing hoselines and performing searches. By incorporating the TI with other operations, leaders can emphasize that it is a tool to help with that function, not intended as a standalone operation. This approach also gives members familiarity with using the TI in primary operations.
Second, all training evolutions must be monitored by instructors or supervisors. Ideally, this is done with another TI, so leaders have a means of verifying that safe habits are reinforced. After all, training with faulty methods does not promote firefighter safety. Leaders must see what trainees are doing to ensure that they are performing properly, following both common safety practices as well as department procedures. A wireless transmitter can assist instructors in monitoring training drills.